Flocks of sandhill cranes have filled the skies over La Grange during the past few days as the winged giants head south for the winter. Groups of the birds 200 to 300 strong soared past the La Grange Country Club on Sunday afternoon about every 45 minutes or so.
We first brought you the cranes' story in March as they made their way to northern breeding grounds. Revisit it now as they head south for the winter.
If you take a step outside over your lunch hour during the next week or so, you may find a special treat by turning your eyes skyward.
Sandhill cranes are making their annual migration over the Chicago area to breeding grounds in the north, said Chris Anchor, a wildlife biologist with the Cook County Forest Preserve.
This year’s month-long migration started in late February — about two to three weeks earlier than normal, Anchor said. The birds appear in Chicago’s skies after stopping over in the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in northwest Indiana.
“They rally there and as the weather improves, they head to central Wisconsin and southern Minnesota to breed,” Anchor said.
Several thousand sandhill cranes will fly over La Grange and surrounding suburbs in flocks up to several hundred strong before the migration ends.
The birds’ size gives the flocks an almost prehistoric look. Sandhill cranes stand three- to four-feet tall and boast a wingspan that can stretch more than five-feet wide, according to the National Wildlife Federation. Their bodies are grey with a mask of red feathers surrounding their eyes. A tuft of white feathers wraps around the base of their slim beaks.
The best time to see the cranes is around noon, Anchor said, though their flights typically start at 10:30 a.m. and end near 4 p.m.
Sometimes the cranes can be found circling over fields that haven’t sprouted yet, taking advantage of the heat that radiates from the black dirt after it absorbs sunlight, Anchor said. Since balmy air rises, the warmth from the fields helps the cranes ascend to cruising height. Once there, they can glide for miles on air currents without flapping their wings.
It wasn’t so many years ago that sandhill cranes were a less common springtime sight, Anchor said. A decade ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considered them an endangered species. Today, through state and federal preservation efforts, crane populations are booming.
“It’s a real success story,” he said.